Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XXXIX


In about an hour afterwards, Rachel Lake arrived in the carriage which had been despatched for her with Dorcas's note.

She was a good deal muffled up, and looked very pale, and asked whether Miss Brandon was in her room, whither she glided rapidly up stairs. It was a sort of boudoir or dressing-room, with a few pretty old portraits and miniatures, and a number of Louis Quatorze looking-glasses hung round, and such pretty quaint cabriole gilt and pale green furniture.

Dorcas met her at the door, and they kissed silently.

'How is he, Dorcas?'

'Very ill, dear, I'm afraid—sit down, darling.'

Rachel was relieved, for in her panic she almost feared to ask if he were living.

'Is there immediate danger?'

'The doctor says not, but he is very much alarmed for to-morrow.'

'Oh! Dorcas, darling, he'll die; I know it. Oh! merciful Heaven! how tremendous.'

'You will not be so frightened in a little time. You have only just heard it, Rachel dearest, and you are startled. I was so myself.'

'I'd like to see him, Dorcas.'

'Sit here a little and rest, dear. The doctor will make his visit immediately, and then we can ask him. He's a good-natured little creature—poor old Buddle—and I am certain if it can safely be, he won't prevent it.'

'Where is he, darling—where is Stanley?'

So Dorcas described as well as she could.

'Oh, poor Stanley. Oh, Stanley—poor Stanley,' gasped Rachel, with white lips. 'You have no idea, Dorcas—no one can—how terrific it is. Oh, poor Stanley—poor Stanley.'

'Drink this water, darling; you must not be so excited.'

'Dorcas, say what the doctor may, see him I must.'

'There is time to think of that, darling.'

'Has he spoken to anyone?'

'Very little, I believe. He whispers a few words now and then—that is all.'

'Nothing to Chelford—nothing particular, I mean?'

'No—nothing—at least that I have heard of.'

'Did he wish to see no one?'

'No one, dear.'

'Not poor William Wylder?'

'No, dear. I don't suppose he cares more for a clergyman than for any other man; none of his family ever did, when they came to lie on a bed of sickness, or of death either.'

'No, no,' said Rachel, wildly; 'I did not mean to pray. I was not thinking of that; but William Wylder was different; and he did not mention me either?'

Dorcas shook her head.

'I knew it,' continued Rachel, with a kind of shudder. 'And tell me, Dorcas, does he know that he is in danger—such imminent danger?'

'That I cannot say, Rachel, dear. I don't believe doctors like to tell their patients so.'

There was a silence of some minutes, and Rachel, clasping her hands in an agony, said—

'Oh, yes—he's gone—he's certainly gone; and I remain alone under that dreadful burden.'

'Please, Miss Brandon, the doctor's down stairs with Captain Lake,' said the maid, opening the door.

'Is Lord Chelford with him?'

'Yes, Miss, please.'

'Then tell him I will be so obliged if he will come here for a moment, when the doctor is gone; and ask the doctor now, from me, how he thinks Captain Lake.'

In a little while the maid returned. Captain Lake was not so low, and rather better than this morning, the doctor said; and Rachel raised her eyes, and whispered an agitated thanksgiving. 'Was Lord Chelford coming?'

'His lordship had left the room when she returned, and Mr. Larcom said he was with Lawyer Larkin in the library.'

'Mr. Larkin can wait. Tell Lord Chelford I wish very much to see him here.'

So away went the maid again. A message in that great house was a journey; and there was a little space before they heard a knock at the door of Dorcas's pretty room, and Lord Chelford, duly invited, came in.

Lord Chelford was surprised to see Rachel, and held her hand, while he congratulated her on the more favourable opinion of the physician this afternoon; and then he gave them, as fully and exactly as he could, all the lights emitted by Dr. Buddle, and endeavoured to give his narrative as cheerful and confident an air as he could. Then, at length, he recollected that Mr. Larkin was waiting in the study.

'I quite forgot Mr. Larkin,' said he; 'I left him in the library, and I am so very glad we have had a pleasanter report upon poor Lake this evening; and I am sure we shall all feel more comfortable on seeing Sir Francis Seddley. He is such an admirable surgeon; and I feel sure he'll strike out something for our poor patient. I've known him hit upon such original expedients, and make such wonderful successes.'

So with a kind smile he left the room.

Then there was a long pause.

'Does he really think that Stanley will recover?' said Rachel.

'I don't know; I suppose he hopes it. I don't know, Rachel, what to think of anyone or anything. What wild beasts they are. How "swift to shed blood," as poor William Wylder said last Sunday. Have you any idea what they quarrelled about?'

'None in the world. It was that odious Sir Harry Bracton—was not it?'

'Why so odious, Rachel? How can you tell which was in the wrong? I only know he seems to be a better marksman than your poor brother.'

Rachel looked at her with something of haughty and surprised displeasure, but said nothing.

'You look at me, Radie, as if I were a monster—or monstress, I should say—whereas I am only a Brandon. Don't you remember how our great ancestor, who fought for the House of York, changed suddenly to Lancaster, and how Sir Richard left the King and took part with Cromwell, not for any particular advantage, I believe, or for any particular reason even, but for wickedness and wounded pride, perhaps.'

'I don't quite see your meaning, Dorcas. I can't understand how your pride has been hurt; but if Stanley had any, I can well imagine what torture it must have endured; wretched, wicked, punished fool!'

'You suspect what they fought about, Radie!'

Rachel made no answer.

'You do, Radie, and why do you dissemble with me?'

'I don't dissemble; I don't care to speak; but if you will have me say so, I do suspect—I think it must have originated in jealousy of you.'

'You look, Radie, as if you thought I had managed it—whereas I really did not care.'

'I do not understand you, Dorcas; but you appear to me very cruel, and you smile, as I say so.'

'I smile, because I sometimes think so myself.'

With a fixed and wrathful stare Rachel returned the enigmatical gaze of her beautiful cousin.

'If Stanley dies, Dorcas, Sir Harry Bracton shall hear of it. I'll lose my life, but he shall pay the forfeit of his crime.'

So saying, Rachel left the room, and gliding through passages, and down stairs, she knocked at Stanley's door. The old woman opened it.

'Ah, Dorothy! I'm so glad to see you here!' and she put a present in her hard, crumpled hand.

So, noiselessly, Rachel Lake, without more parley, stepped into the room, and closed the door. She was alone with Stanley With a beating heart, and a kind of chill stealing over her, by her brother's bed.

The room was not so dark that she could not see distinctly enough.

There lay her brother, such as he was—still her brother, on the bleak, neutral ground between life and death. His features, peaked and earthy, and that look, so new and peculiar, which does not savour of life upon them. He did not move, but his strange eyes gazed cold and earnest from their deep sockets upon her face in awful silence. Perhaps he thought he saw a phantom.

'Are you better, dear?' whispered Rachel.

His lips stirred and his throat, but he did not speak until a second effort brought utterance, and he murmured,

'Is that you, Radie?'

'Yes, dear. Are you better?'

'No. I'm shot. I shall die to-night. Is it night yet?'

'Don't despair, Stanley, dear. The great London doctor, Sir Francis Seddley, will be with you early in the morning, and Chelford has great confidence in him. I'm sure he will relieve you.'

'This is Brandon?' murmured Lake.

'Yes, dear.'

She thought he was going to say more, but he remained silent, and she recollected that he ought not to speak, and also that she had that to say which must be said.

Sharp, dark, and strange lay that familiar face upon the white pillow. The faintest indication of something like a peevish sneer; it might be only the lines of pain and fatigue; still it had that unpleasant character remaining fixed on its features.

'Oh, Stanley! you say you think you are dying. Won't you send for William Wylder and Chelford, and tell all you know of Mark?'

She saw he was about to say something, and she leaned her head near his lips, and she heard him whisper,—

'It won't serve Mark.'

'I'm thinking of you, Stanley—I'm thinking of you.'

To which he said either 'Yes' or 'So.' She could not distinguish.

'I view it now quite differently. You said, you know, in the park, you would tell Chelford; and I resisted, I believe, but I don't now. I had rather you did. Yes, Stanley, I conjure you to tell it all.'

The cold lips, with a livid halo round them, murmured, 'Thank you.'

It was a sneer, very shocking just then, perhaps; but unquestionably a sneer.

'Poor Stanley!' she murmured, with a kind of agony, looking down upon that changed face. 'One word more, Stanley. Remember, it's I, the only one on earth who stands near you in kindred, your sister, Stanley, who implores of you to take this step before it is too late; at least, to consider.'

He said something. She thought it was 'I'll think;' and then he closed his eyes. It was the only motion she had observed, his face lay just as it had done on the pillow. He had not stirred all the time she was there; and now that his eyelids closed, it seemed to say, our interview is over—the curtain has dropped; and so understanding it, with that one awful look that may be the last, she glided from the bed-side, told old Dorothy that he seemed disposed to sleep, and left the room.

There is something awful always in the spectacle of such a sick-bed as that beside which Rachel had just stood. But not quite so dreadful is the sight as are the imaginings and the despair of absence. So reassuring is the familiar spectacle of life, even in its subsidence, so long as bodily torture and mental aberration are absent.

In the meanwhile, on his return to the library, Lord Chelford found his dowager mother in high chat with the attorney, whom she afterwards pronounced 'a very gentlemanlike man for his line of life.'

The conversation, indeed, was chiefly that of Lady Chelford, the exemplary attorney contributing, for the most part, a polite acquiescence, and those reflections which most appositely pointed the moral of her ladyship's tale, which concerned altogether the vagaries of Mark Wylder—a subject which piqued her curiosity and irritated her passions.

It was a great day for Jos. Larkin; for by the time Lord Chelford returned the old lady had asked him to stay for dinner, which he did, notwithstanding his morning dress, to his great inward satisfaction, because he could henceforward mention, 'the other day, when I dined at Brandon,' or 'old Lady Chelford assured me, when last I dined at Brandon;' and he could more intimately speak of 'our friends at Brandon,' and 'the Brandon people,' and, in short, this dinner was very serviceable to the excellent attorney.

It was not very amusing this interchange of thought and feeling between Larkin and the dowager, upon a theme already so well ventilated as Mark Wylder's absconding, and therefore I let it pass.

After dinner, when the dowager's place knew her no more, Lord Chelford resumed his talk with Larkin.

'I am quite confirmed in the view I took at first,' he said. 'Wylder has no claim upon me. There are others on whom much more naturally the care of his money would devolve, and I think that my undertaking the office he proposes, under his present strange circumstances, might appear like an acquiescence in the extraordinary course he has taken, and a sanction generally of his conduct, which I certainly can't approve. So, Mr. Larkin, I have quite made up my mind. I have no business to undertake this trust, simple as it is.'

'I have only, my lord, to bow to your lordship's decision; at the same time I cannot but feel, my lord, how peculiar and painful is the position in which it places me. There are rents to be received by me, and sums handed over, to a considerable—I may say, indeed, a very large amount: and my friend Lake—Captain Lake—now, unhappily, in so very precarious a state, appears to dislike the office, also, and to anticipate annoyance, in the event of his consenting to act. Altogether, your lordship will perceive that the situation is one of considerable, indeed very great embarrassment, as respects me. There is, however, one satisfactory circumstance disclosed in his last letter. His return, he says, cannot be delayed beyond a very few months, perhaps weeks; and he states, in his own rough way, that he will then explain the motives of his conduct to the entire satisfaction of all those who are cognizant of the measures which he has adopted—no more claret, thanks—no more—a delicious wine—and he adds, it will then be quite understood that he has acted neither from caprice, nor from any motive other than self-preservation. I assure you, my lord, that is the identical phrase he employs—self-preservation. I all along suspected, or, rather, I mean, supposed, that Mr. Wylder had been placed in this matter under coercion—a—a threat.'

'A little more wine?' asked Lord Chelford, after another interval.

'No—no more, I thank you. Your lordship's very good, and the wine, I may say, excellent—delicious claret; indeed, quite so—ninety shillings a dozen, I should venture to say, and hardly to be had at that figure; but it grows late, I rather think, and the trustees of our little Wesleyan chapel—we've got a little into debt in that quarter, I am sorry to say—and I promised to advise with them this evening at nine o'clock. They have called me to counsel more than once, poor fellows; and so, with your lordship's permission, I'll withdraw.'

Lord Chelford walked with him to the steps. It was a beautiful night—very little moon, but that and the stars wonderfully clear and bright, and all things looking so soft and airy.

'Try one of these,' said the peer, presenting his cigar case.

Larkin, with a glow of satisfaction, took one of these noble cigars, and rolled it in his fingers, and smelt it.

'Fragrant—wonderfully fragrant!' he observed, meekly, with a connoisseur's shake of the head.

The night was altogether so charming that Lord Chelford was tempted. So he took his cap, and lighted his cigar, too, and strolled a little way with the attorney.

He walked under the solemn trees—the same under whose airy groyning Wylder and Lake had walked away together on that noteworthy night on which Mark had last turned his back upon the grand old gables and twisted chimneys of Brandon Hall.

This way was rather a round, it must be confessed, to the Lodge—Jos, Larkin's peaceful retreat. But a stroll with a lord was worth more than that sacrifice, and every incident which helped to make a colourable case of confidential relations at Brandon—a point in which the good attorney had been rather weak hitherto—was justly prized by that virtuous man.

If the trustees, Smith the pork-butcher, old Captain Snoggles, the Town Clerk, and the rest, had to wait some twenty minutes in the drawing-room at the Lodge, so much the better. An apology was, perhaps, the best and most modest shape into which he could throw the advertisement of his dinner at Brandon—his confidential talk with the proud old dowager, and his after-dinner ramble with that rising young peer, Lord Chelford. It would lead him gracefully into detail, and altogether the idea, the situation, the scene and prospect, were so soothing and charming, that the good attorney felt a silent exaltation as he listened to Lord Chelford's two or three delighted sentences upon the illimitable wonders and mysteries glimmering in the heavens above them.

The cigar was delicious, the air balmy and pleasant, his digestion happy, the society unexceptionably aristocratic—a step had just been gained, and his consideration in the town and the country round improved, by the occurrences of the evening, and his whole system, in consequence, in a state so serene, sweet and satisfactory, that I really believe there was genuine moisture in his pink, dove-like eyes, as he lifted them to the heavens, and murmured, 'Beautiful, beautiful!' And he mistook his sensations for a holy rapture and silent worship.

Cigars, like other pleasures, are transitory. Lord Chelford threw away his stump, tendered his case again to Mr. Larkin, and then took his leave, walking slowly homewards.


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